Some ‘Sea Turtles’ Find Foreign Degrees Don’t Float in China

Times Staff Writer

Kevin Wang was set to take the Chinese job market by storm.

Fluent in English and armed with an MBA from the University of Wisconsin, he returned here after four years abroad, confident that his foreign degree would pay instant dividends in China’s booming economy.

But Wang’s 2002 homecoming was a bust. Responding to countless Internet job postings without success, he soon lowered his $40,000-a-year salary goal -- based on pay scales in the United States. Finally, after a frustrating two-year search in which he taught English to get by, Wang recently landed a $16,000-a-year entry-level position at an insurance company. And he felt lucky to get it.

“With all my experience and foreign education, I figured I’d really do something here,” he said. “It’s tough not meeting what I thought were pretty realistic goals.”


Over the last two decades, 600,000 mainland Chinese have left to study abroad and 160,000, lured by stories of quick employment and fast money, have returned in search of work, government officials estimate. For years, they have been known as sea turtles, a pun on hai gui, which pronounced the same but written in different characters means “returned from overseas studies.”

But many have been so unsuccessful at finding work that they’ve earned a new nickname: seaweed, based on a double entendre that also means “returned from overseas and waiting for a job.”

Those with work experience in fields such as law or banking can demand top salaries. Many sea turtles, however, return with MBAs or information-technology degrees, which have swamped the job market. They also lack job experience -- and have gained a Western outspokenness that’s not particularly marketable back home.

Many sea turtles find that their homegrown counterparts have improved English skills, making them more competitive in an international marketplace where the ability to communicate with Westerners is always in demand.

Their absence also often costs them valuable insight into the ever-changing Chinese marketplace: New terminology, new industries and, in Beijing, new business communities have emerged just in the last two years.

The result: Although many of their fellow graduates who remain in the United States, Europe or Australia are getting comparatively hefty salaries, some sea turtles have taken jobs that pay less than $4,000 a year.

Chinese employers say the arrogance of many of those who return has bred unrealistic -- and sometimes even laughable -- salary demands, as well as expectations of a quick rise up the company ladder. They view domestic workers as not only cheaper but also easier to manage.

“Many students build a new mind-set overseas,” said Eddie Ng, who hires for a multinational bank in Hong Kong. “They assume they’re sons and daughters of the emperor. They think everything is like it was in the United States or Europe.”

Foreign students with finance degrees often expect $50,000 a year, compared with the $5,000 many banks are prepared to pay, he said.

“They want 10 times what the market will accommodate,” Ng said. “Every day I sit across from one of these people and give them the bad news: It’s not going to happen.”

Ma Xinjun, manager of the Beijing Talent Service Center, tells of a worker making $6,000 a year at a high-tech firm. The man left to study overseas and returned to apply at his old company. The only job available: his old job, at the same pay.

Beijing headhunter Sunny Yang knows a returning student who became so frustrated that she lowered her salary requirement to just $1,200 a year -- poverty wages, even in Beijing -- just to get an offer. She later took a job for more money.

“The situation for sea turtles is bleak,” Yang said. “There are too many foreign applicants with the same advanced degrees.”

With a master’s degree in event management, Li Yijing returned from France in 2002 to take a government job at $200 a month. “That is nothing in Beijing,” said the 36-year-old, who now runs her own company. “All my salary went for rent. I had to use up my savings to eat and pay bills. These companies should pay enough so people at least have enough money to have a life.”

Andrew Tsui, Hong Kong managing director for Korn/Ferry International, an executive search company, said many sea turtles who land jobs make the mistake of trying to show up their domestic colleagues.

“They go off to these exotic places and learn all these new ideas, so when they return, they want to prove they’re better trained and more competent than people who never left home,” he said. “But that kind of attitude doesn’t work in China.”

Some sea turtles say they are not given credit for the expense and hardships they endured to get a foreign education. And many say they are blamed for factors beyond their control: bringing home the cultural attitudes of the country where they were educated.

Universities in the United States and Europe teach students to become outspoken and aggressive as individuals, traits that are not well received in China, they say.

Donna Wang earned an MBA in France before returning home to Beijing. The 26-year-old said foreign companies, especially those in the United States, expected employees to freely offer their personal opinions on work-related issues.

“These companies expect you to work hard and speak out,” said Wang, who works for a Beijing employment company. “In China, they want you to do more and say less.”

Gao Hang said the pressure on returning students like him was immense.

“Employers figure you must be able to do anything,” said Gao, who works at a Beijing headhunting service. “You get no time for on-the-job learning. They assume you already know it.”

At 27, Gao’s experience is typical of many sea turtles. After receiving his undergraduate degree in China, he spent two years at Leeds University in England earning master’s degrees in information systems and human resource management.

He arrived there without friends and unable to speak English, and couldn’t understand how so many students could waste most nights drinking beer at pubs.

Gao returned to Beijing in 2003 to claim a salary of only $7,500 a year. But that wasn’t his biggest shock: Beijing had changed. “There were so many people and the city was so noisy compared to England,” he said. He took a drive near his home and got lost -- the road had been rerouted.

“British society is developed and stable, but China is changing every single day,” he said. “And when you go away, you can’t keep pace.”

Some employers remind the students not to forget why they went abroad -- not so much for profit but for adventure and cultural perspective. “It’s wrong to judge an experience abroad solely on your financial return when you come back,” said Patrick Horgan, director at APCO China, an investment consulting company. “That’s just setting yourself up for failure.”

Gao’s time away has brought a valuable lesson. “Life abroad just doesn’t suit me,” he said. “In England, I tried to go to the pubs like everyone else, but it was terrible. No matter how much money I make, I’m just happy to be home.”